TURKEY: Alevi Kurds’ double oppression and the myths of Turkey’s official history / About ethnical identities

Interview with Mehmet Bayrak: Kurdistan Tribune – 14.12.2012 – Mehmet Bayrak, the veteran Alevi Kurdish writer and publisher, has been prosecuted many times by the Turkish authorities. He was interviewed last year in New York by Ahmet Abidin Ozbek.

AO: As we know you are very sensitive about ethnic and religious identities. Why are our identities so essential?

MB: Each person has multiple identities. As mentioned previously, our ‘class identity’ as a human being will not encompass all other identities. I mean, we need all these different identities. People’s national identity is very important. In this context, I have often mentioned in my writing that people have four essential identities. Ethnic identity is only one of them. Other identities are: religion, class and gender. I reflected and showed these realities in my work because I came from an Alevi, Kurdish and labor background. You can see this in my research, especially as someone with a Kurd national identity, and from the Alevi faith. I also espoused class and women’s identity in the context of questioning gender and labor oppression.

AO: You have mentioned in your speeches that Alevi and Kurdish identities are often intertwined. Can you elaborate a little.

MB: Some identities overlap each other, such as Ezidi, Kurd or Alevi. These people are minorities within a minority. If we look more closely at Kurdish Alevis, we see this same phenomena. As Kurds we are a minority within Turkish society, but also as Alevis we are minorities inside the Muslim society. In other words, our identities become enveloped in the concept of religion and ethnicity, because we are minorities within a minority.

You know that in our area (Maras or Sivas) people say in Kurdish  very commonly, “Em Elevi” (it means, ‘We are Alevi’). This definition stressed also being Kurdish beside Alevi. By coincidence, most of the Alevis in the area are also ethnically Kurds. Thus the identities are intertwined. The Sunni Kurds are considered as Turks. Ironically, Sunni is identified with Turkishness. Therefore, even though some Sunnis are Kurdish, our people called them Turks or ‘Tırk’. In fact, this is a mental delusion but also a complicated case. Therefore, Alevi Kurds in Turkey are one of the most oppressed elements because of their national, religious and class background. So, while Sunni Kurds have been crushed because of their national identity, the Alevi Kurds were crushed even more, due to their religious dimension. We can say that they have been doubly crushed.

AO: According to the thinker Krishnamurti there is a problem for people who have different identities and can’t live together. It is unfortunate that often the difference appears to be due to dislike. My question here is: what is the root of the current problems in our land?

MB: I’ve always said that the main source of the problems in today’s Turkey originated from the Union and Progress Party’s (Ittihat ve Terraki) period. That’s the period of ethno-religious cleansing, homogenization and a policy of Islamisation that was initiated by the Turks. We need to pay attention to this. If there is a Kurdish Alevi issue and other ethnic or ‘identity crisis’ problems we have to find the source of this in the Union and Progress Party (UP) period or even a little further back in time in the Abdulhamid period.

AO: Can you explain this, based on the decisions taken by these parties when they held power?

MB: Yes, the fundamentals were initiated by the UP, and the same policies were continued by the Kemalist regime during the Republican period. What is the basis of this policy? Ethno-religious cleansing was based on homogenization or Turco-Islamisation. If the republic hadn’t gone in a wrong direction, we might not have these problems today. The Ottomans were in some ways more advanced than the republic. In reality, Ottoman rule was based on a legacy of multi-cultural and multi-class society.

At the beginning, the constitutional monarch movement sought to solve these problems and ensure liberty. The motto was ‘freedom, equality, fraternity’ which excited the masses. The intellectuals of different ethnic groups voiced their support for the movement. However, when the people of Balkan and Caucasian ethnicity took over the management of the UP in 1912 – I do not mind saying this – the situation changed dramatically. From then, the converts and Devshirme[1] , such as the Balkan and Caucasian intellectuals and cadres, became in charge of the entire Turkish politics.

AO: Are you saying that everything changed because the power of the state passed to new immigrants?

MB: Yes. Although they were not Turkish in origin, they embraced Turkishness. They were not Muslim in origin, but they converted to Islam. They considered themselves Turkish and they went so far as to become Turkish racists in the Ottoman Empire. I have already given more details in my past works. They were of Balkan and Caucasus origin. Meantime, those who were in conflict with the Russian Czar, tried to dedicate themselves to Turkishness  and Islam before moving to Ottoman territory. These were some famous figures such as Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk), Enver Pasha, Talat and Cemal Pasha who were also from the Balkans.

The year 1912 was a kind of milestone for me if we look at the past 100 years in Turkey. There was a big Armenian and Assyrian genocide in 1915. This event was the first major ethno-religious fault-line of Turkish Islamisation. The Quzilbash massacre occurred in the Kocgiri area at 1921. In the name of the national struggle, the Albanian-born bearded Nurettin Pasha and his soldiers burnt Izmir city in 1922 and forced all the Greeks into exile. A year later, the same person led the Quzilbash massacre. The exchange law was declared immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. While Turks came to Turkey, Greek people were forced to go to Greece under the framework of this article.

Because the Kurds started to protest against the new Kemalist policies in 1925, more than 15,000 Kurds who defended their national heritage were killed. More than 30,000 Kurds were murdered during the Agri-Zilan rebellion from 1927 to 1930. More than 10,000 Quzilbash-Alevi Kurds were massacred in 1937-38 in the Dersim area. The Prime Minister said the true number could reach 50,000. In the 1940s a variety of informal arrangements were made against non-Muslims. Atatürk’s house in Thessaloniki bombed by the MIT (Turkish intelligence) in 1955. This incident created disorder and a movement against non-Muslims including forced expulsions from Istanbul. The coup d’ etat followed in 1960. There were banners everywhere under the name of Cemal Gursel, who was the head of the coup d’etat. As I myself witnessed, the banner said, “Spit in his face if somebody says you are Kurdish”. These words claim that ‘being a Kurd is so shameful’ and they tried to make people ashamed to talk about their identity.

The TIP (Turkey’s Worker Party) and left movement was strengthening after the 1960 coup d’etat. Wide layers of society were on the left. During this period, the State ordered the establishment of a civilian militia, and created commando camps at 31 sites in Turkey to combat the left. These commando groups were unleashed on the opposition. Prime Minister Demirel led these commando units which were sent against factories, workers, Alevis and leftists in the second half of the 1960s. They tried to organize a massacre in Elbistan in 1967. This is a place densely populated by Alevi Kurds. There were similar initiatives in 1971 at Kırıkhan and in 1975 at Malatya. There was a big Kurdish Alevi massacre at Maras in 1978.

AO: The pro-state Turkish press and media says the Turkish Government was never responsible for revolts and massacres. According to their conspiracy theories, external forces are always responsible for this. In other words, when the matter is about Kurds, the interventions and provocations of foreign powers are invoked.

MB: This is complete disinformation. There was the Maras massacre in 1978, as you know. There was a massacre at Corum in mid-1980. Corum is a place inhabited by the Alevi Kurds. Then in 1993 at Sivas, in 1995 at Gazi, where mostly Alevi Kurds were living. I am mentioning this because, if these massacres were just based  on Alevism, they would also have targeted the Arab Alevis in Cukurova or Tahtacilar in Western Anatoly or the Alevi Turkmens on Taurus mountain.

AO: So you say that argument about external support or provocations is not true?

MB: I think it has nothing to do with it. But it has something to do with politics based on ethnic-religious cleansing. Turkish official historians have no shame. For example, they link the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925 to British intelligence. However, even in the period of the second president, Ismet Inonu, in his memoirs he says there was no trace of any Englishman. Furthermore, there was agent provocateur involvement. There was a Turkish official who impersonated a British person and was sent to the Kurds. I have previously published all the documents about this. When it comes to the matter of Dersim, 1934-35, this was a well-planned massacre. They tried to connect the problem with the Hatay issue. Unethically, they said the Dersim rebellion was provoked by French and British officials because of the Hatay problem. But, did you know that the Hatay issue was resolved in 1938? About four or five years before this, the events of Dersim started, resulting in the massacre of thousands of people by the Turkish state. So there is complete disinformation, the same phenomena as the 1955 bombing of Atatürk’s house in Thessaloniki, which the Greeks were falsely accused of.

AO: Do you think that Prime Minister Erdogan is sincere today about ending all the disinformation against the Alevis and Kurds?

MB: I believe in the laws of social development above all laws. In other words, the laws of social development must comply with all laws. He comes from an Islamic tradition and this could create conflict with official policies of the state. This fact might mobilize some national and international opposition. But events should show how sincere he is. For example, an important step was the establishment of a Kurdish TV channel – an event that occurred as a result of societal developments. He said that the problems couldn’t be solved by military means, but so far he is not sincere about achieving a peaceful solution. Beside, people who are involved in civilian politics have been arrested. This is a serious contradiction and people can see this.

AO: What do you think about the protection of historical and archaeological sites belonging to different ethnic groups such as the Kurds or Alevis in Turkey?

MB: What you have raised is very important. People can only search about their history from archaeological findings from before the invention of writing. Text came later anyway. Archaeological studies and research is very important to understand a region’s history and values. But, like most other issues, these matters are extremely distorted in Turkey. If we look at the Kurdish regions we can see the facts about Hasankeyf. They have made efforts to eliminate or destroy the area. However, Hasankeyf is one of humanity’s most important heritage sites and it is extremely interesting and striking. Hasankeyf and its history would have been flooded and exterminated already, were it not for the contribution and conservation efforts of Kurdish people and intellectuals. I wrote constantly about this subject, during the 1988-89 period,  inviting the people to be more sensitive about the protection of heritage. The proposed disappearance of Hasankeyf is an important means to destroy our place in the history of mankind; similarly, the plan to build dams in Dersim. The Dersim area is very important for the heritage of both Kurds and Alevis. This area is very sacred for many Alevis. The significance of the Munzur river for the Alevis is almost the same as that of the Ganges holy river for Buddhist people. By building various dams, the state is trying to move the people out of the area while it also wants to put all the historical-sociological data into the water.

AO: I believe those who promoted the official ideology are also distorting historical and archaeological research. Since the establishment of the Republic, they mainly talk about the Hittites, Greeks and Romans in the recent history of Anatolian civilizations. However, there is little research that focuses on the Hurrians, Medes or Urartus who are ancestors of the Kurds and the Armenians in the area.

MB: Of course it is in line with the official ideology in Turkey to control all branches of scientific research. How can there be anything good, if the state doesn’t have good politics? There was the booklet prepared in the 1930s by the state that outlined Turkish racist history. Everything was said to originate from the Turkish race and culture, even all the languages in the world. It is extremely racist writing used to teach people. That’s why the historical research on the role of Armenians, Kurds and other people was always denied.

AO: One last question. If you have to make a choice, as Mehmet Bayrak, do you prefer Kurdish or Alevi identity?

MB: I carried by chance all the despised and humiliated identities when I was in Turkey. Even though I came from an Alevi and Kurdish family, I also had a labor identity which I have always lived in peace with. It is not necessary to be a member to defend these identities. For example, although I am not a woman I have defended oppressed women, I am not worker but, as a matter of class identity, I have respected labor and supported oppressed working people.

AO: Thank you, Mr Bayrak, for this very informative conversation.

 [1] Devshirme was the practice by which the Ottoman Empire took boys from Christian families who were then forcibly converted to Islam.

This interview was originally published in 2011 at sercavan.com by Sukru Gulmus. It was translated by Ahmet Abidin Ozbek.

About Mehmet Bayrak:

Mehmet Bayrak was born in 1948 at Sariz-Kayseri to an Alevi-Kurdish family from the Sinemilli tribe. He graduated from the Turcology Department at Ankara University. From 1971 he started to publish a lot of articles on Turkish modern literature and Turcology issues. His first book was ‘Tevfik Fikret and Revolution’ which was published in 1973. Later, he focused more on village literature and people. His investigative-anthology, ‘Writers and Intellectuals from Village Institutes’, was published 1976 by the TOB-DER Association of Teachers in Turkey. From then on, he focused more on folklore and history – for example, ‘Banditry and Bandit Songs’ (1985 and 1996), which was prosecuted by the Turkish state.

From the mid-seventies he also began to write more about the Kurdish people and he published various article on Kurdology with his nom de plume. He was editor-in-chief and writer at ‘Freedom Road’ from 1975 to 198. He published ‘Free Future’ issues, mostly focused on the Kurdish question in Turkey, in 1988-1989. After he and the magazine were prosecuted more than 30 times, he decided to open OZ-GE Publishing in 1991. Since then he has published many books on Kurdish issues, Kurdology, history and literature. His more recent historical works include: ‘Alevism and Kurdology’ (document, 2004), ‘Armenian Bards in Alevi-Bektashi Literature’ (2006), ‘Dersim-Kocgiri Massacre’ (2010), ‘Alevi Massacres’ (2011) and ‘Handcuffs for Kurds’ (2009), to name a few.

Mr Bayrak has been prosecuted over many of the books he has published. He has paid numerous fines, spent time in jail and been tortured for his writings and publishing and for his political struggle  He continues to this day with his very valuable efforts for his people.